We dedicate these episodes to the memories of Kimberly Proctor and Tyeshia Jones.
Flowers for the Dead
by Jamie Mason
The acoustics of the concrete stairwell magnify sounds ten-fold, a hundred-fold as Kyle climbs. His breath, his footsteps, the squeak of his hand on the steel railing reverberate, echoing up and down the depths of the great man-made cavern as he rises floor upon floor toward the Magician’s penthouse. I must be crazy, he thinks. The raw magnitude of The Magician’s sorcery is so powerful, the force of his will such that he must avoid contact with others, spend the majority of his time locked up in this tower lest he bend the world to his will with a stray thought. The light from improvised torches causes the spiral sigils and vaguely sinister runes inscribed on the walls to flicker and undulate like dancing demons. Kyle pauses. Stares up into the half-lit darkness. Then plods on.
A firefly glow on a landing far above: Kyle concentrates on it as he mounts step after step. Gradually the glow broadens until it defines the stairwell in a foliage of shadows. The rhythm of Kyle’s feet slow as he mounts the last set of stairs to a landing marked with a large number 13 painted on the wall in black. A ragged wall of cement chokes the stairwell leading up. The landing itself, lit by an improvised candelabra of paraffin-filled tin cans, is empty save for a young barefoot woman in a red evening gown who sits reading a book in a chair. She glances at Kyle, slips a black ribbon between the pages and leaves the leather-bound volume on the seat behind her as she rises.
“How do you enter the flames, child?” she asks.
Kyle glances down at the charred outline of a pentagram on the landing floor.
“It’s the only way forward.” The girl takes up a single candle and holds it in her right hand, beckoning him with her left. “Monsieur Kyrzig – The Magician – will see you now. He has been expecting you.”
Kyle walks the concrete landing and crosses into the pentagram, haunted by images of blackened arms reaching up through black bags of garbage. He wonders if Kim, if Trad, came here. An irrational thought (I’m not a girl so I’m safe) wars with recognition of his peril. This woman has power over the Fire Elemental – obvious from her dress, from the practiced way in which she coaxes and balances and teases the flame of the candle in her hand as she wields it. She crosses to the edge of the pentagram.
“Why have you come to ride the flame?” She does not blink as she watches Kyle, awaiting a reply.
“I need to know what kind of magic is mine.”
“The only way to find out … is to do.” Her smile is infinitely sinister, infinitely gentle.
“But how do I know what to do unless somebody tells me?”
The girl’s eyes widen in momentary surprise before she bends, touching the candle flame to the circumference of the shape on the landing floor and Kyle is consumed by sheets of flame.
“Tell me, Kyle … do you know why magicians wear gloves?”
An orange glow crawls from the fireplace (the one through which Kyle entered the room) and grasps the shadowed furniture in coppery fingers. The Magician’s study is appointed in Eighteenth Century style – lamps with tasseled shades, an escritoire, statuettes and gewgaws crowding tables accented by deeply-filigreed coverings. The half-light from the fire suffuses the decor in a cozy glow behind high closed draperies.
Kyle shakes his head, slightly dazed after his trip through the flames.
“The purpose of the gloves –” The Magician settles himself in a thickly-padded armchair “- is to prevent us singeing our fingers in the primordial fire.”
“I can see why you wear them. Fire is everywhere here.”
“Fire cleanses.” The Magician flicks lint from the crease of his pants, adjusts the button of his tuxedo jacket. “Fire refines.”
“Fire kills.” Kyle stares down at his own hands, remembering the charred and blackened ones reaching up toward him from the dumpster’s depths.
“It can. So you are interested in discovering what kind of magic is yours. Such a question suggests an imbalance, a violation of the first rule. Tea?” The Magician leans closer, proffering a ceramic pot exuding a slightly burnt aroma. Kyle shakes his head and frowns.
“Indeed!” The Magician replaces the pot on the tray, puts his hands on his knees. “‘As above, so below.’ Or – conversely – ‘As within, so without.’ That you might need someone to tell you what sort of magic is yours is ridiculous.”
“Then how will I know?”
“Magic begins when we cease looking for answers from others and start creating our own. You’re not the first to come courting such questions.”
“Did you know a girl named Trad? Kim?”
“Because names are unimportant I never remember them. Identities are what interest me.”
“Then they are in good company.” The Magician’s fingers waggle a droll salute at the brim of his top hat. “The majority of those who have inhabited this planet are dead.” Death, like names, apparently does not interest him.
“Their bodies were burned.”
The Magician’s answering stillness is like a cat’s. And Kyle’s is that of a bird.
“Whoever killed them had magic. Enough to bypass a hex.”
“Perhaps your magic lies in seeking answers.” The Magician smiles thinly. “I have languished in this tower eight years now. Perhaps you can tell me why.”
“Because you can’t do magic without a license.”
“Pfft! A man no more needs a license to do magic than he needs magic to bypass a hex. A charm – some personal object or fetish enchanted by a Froule would to the trick. No. Your ability to plumb for answers is weak. That is plainly not your magic.”
“And yours is fire?”
“Mine … is truth. Which can be like fire.” The Magician speaks moodily to the hearth. “Truth immolates. Consumes. Strips things down to the bare, ugly skeleton. Fall in love with the truth, boy, and you will be alone. And the lonely have a penchant for drastic action.”
Kyle has had enough. He starts looking for a door. But of course there is none. He remembers how he got here. As he turns back toward the hearth he catches sight of The Magician grinning a rictus grin.
“Leave now and you’ll never learn the answer.”
“You said I shouldn’t ask but create my own answer.”
“By following your natural inclinations, yes.”
“I wanna create mine … somewhere else, ‘kay?”
The Magician smiles. “How do you enter the flames, child?”
It occurs to Kyle this is the only time The Magician has asked a question.
“How do you enter the flames, boy? How?”
“Nightside is ringed by a series of parks. These abandoned recreational areas serve as a buffer between Infernal territory and the city’s human population. If you look out the windows to your left you’ll see one such park … Note the dismantled playground equipment, much of it scavenged for parts. Whether Infernal youth ever use these areas is a matter of speculation. Speaking personally, I’ve never seen any when guiding these tours but that’s always during the day. Night is falling now and it’s usually best to leave this area of the city before it gets too dark …”
Kyle descends the wide grassy slope as dusk buries the dying day in the sandboxes of the abandoned park. Charter busses and private vehicles choke the off-ramps into Nightside, bearing the evening’s tide of visitors eager to sample illicit delights. It has been this way ever since Kyle can remember. Humans, repelled and secretly fascinated by his kind, routinely sneak in to enjoy the easy pleasures afforded by the “loose morals” of the Infernals. Ordinarily Kyle would be chiseling some cash for himself from the flow of commerce but instead he angles toward the playground through the concrete-colored gloom. This sector of the city stills, but Kyle’s inner turmoil does not.
Alone. Still a kid. He fights the storm of tears inside his chest. No magic of my own …
By the bars of a jungle-gym weathered silver by rain and neglect, Sick Willy and Gryph wheedle for the attention of a teenage girl. She beams at Kyle as he approaches – seventeen and vaguely hippie-ish in a knitted Rasta toque and worn jeans. It is a smile Kyle is too demoralized to return. Willy’s and Gryph’s glances toward him are, by contrast, perfunctory. Mildly irritated. Kyle’s anger chafes the edge of his profound fatigue. He knows where this is going, can sense the tiresome role he has been cast to play in the upcoming social drama. So he rehearses the mental stages of his leave-taking, already gone, dismissing the new girl as she stands, one hand on the strap of her hemp bag, examining him as he nears.
“Kyle, this is Jada. From Westside.”
“I and I.” Jada blinks sleepily. “I be come for to escape the downpression of Babylon, mon.”
Kyle blinks. Jada is very white.
“She’s interested in our local crop.” Gryphon, unable to hide his interest in Jada, jams his hands in his pockets while his eyes climb all over her – a process that continues unabated except for the occasional warning glance shot Kyle’s way.
“The magic ganj.” Jada nods. “They say seeds get put in I ground, mon, and I speaks a chant over they.”
“A Grower.” Sick Willy takes a puff of his cig. Hands it to Gryphon. “Yeah.”
Jada nods. “Very sought-after among Idren of Ra.”
“Can’t you speak like a normal person?” snaps Kyle. His anguish floods any guilt he may feel for being mean to a pretty girl. He suddenly doesn’t care if he is liked, if he is accepted, if the way he acts puts him at war with the world. He just wants to break things, hurt feelings, push people out of his way. He wants to be gone. I don’t belong here. Kyle glares from watchful Willy to a wary Gryphon. It occurs to him that they aren’t really his friends. First chance they get they’re gonna tear me down in front of her. So what am I even doing here? He clenches his teeth. Exhales sharply. Whirls and stalks away.
“What his problem?” Gryphon’s question skates a bubble of laughter. “No, Willy … Hey, let him …” But a moment later Sick Willy’s hand (a male one) is on Kyle’s arm, yanking him to a stop.
“Kyle, what -?”
“Oh you gonna give me the business about how I don’t know what my skrajing –” (he rips his elbow free) “- magic is? Huh? Or maybe give Jada the lecture all about how I’ve ‘never had a girlfriend’? Huh? You skrajing Fluxer freak! Just go ahead and do it once, Willy. I’ll smash your skrajing face! I’ve had it with you!”
Willy’s face (his real one) tightens in shock. “Hey. Kyle.” He speaks softly. “No, we’re –”
“You’re what? Not my friends. That’s for sure.” Kyle spits. “I am so – we are so done. I’m outta’ here. You go have fun with your Trustafarian. This is bleak! Skraj this! I’m leaving to go get a job and live among the humans.”
“You’ll be nothing out there!”
“So? I’m nothing here. What’s the diff?” Kyle is three steps away when Willy catches his arm again.
“Okay, man. Hey. Okay. Look.” Willy backs off when Kyle turns. Willy holds both palms out. “At least let us give you a going-away present, yeah? A bag to take with you? Seriously. On us.”
Kyle breathes, mastering his tidal rage. The relief promised by a nice bag of weed is tempting. (And free? The street kid within him can’t resist …) Kyle has a line on a job as a night janitor in an office building on the edge of Nightside. He plans to lose himself in solitary work, pushing a mop across silent floors at 2 AM. After all the jagged emotions of the past days, imagining himself returning home at dawn to light up a nice stick of magic weed is too seductive to pass up. So he nods curtly and falls into step with Willy.
Free dope, he tells himself. Free.
A sleepy-eyed Froule, fat toes poking out from beneath his frayed robe, waits by his grow patch behind the maintenance shed. He blinks at them as they approach.
“The Earth is bountiful, the Earth is just.” He speaks between tokes of a thick joint, sliding one bloodshot eye toward Jada. “Even to they not of magic kin.”
“She’s not the only one, Ribbon-bearer.” Gryphon glares boldly at the length of red silk the Froule received upon his exile from the Mage Guild that he must, by law, wear wrapped around his peaked magician’s cap. “We’re here for a bag. We have money.” Gryphon steps protectively between the Froule and the Rasta girl.
The Froule laughs. “Money, money. A multitude of evils. As I recall last time you came you had money too. And a different girlee. Your money didn’t help her neither.” The Froule’s gaze drops to the mouth of the tunnel visible through a break in the skimpy foliage. “A bag costs ten. Pay up front.”
As Gryphon settles with the Grower Jada, her Rasta cant forgotten, asks Willy: “What’s he talking about? What other girl?”
“Nothing.” Sick Willy pulls Jada to the edge of the flower bed. The Grower has begun poking seeds into the soil.
Strange, Kyle thinks, how both of the dead girls were with Gryph and Sick Willy before they …
Shouts behind them. Kyle looks up to see a flash of blue: Harriman, one hand on his belt, the other gripping the radio mike at his shoulder, sprinting along the path toward the tunnel where they found Kim’s body, followed closely by another cop. The Grower’s gravelly incantation, meanwhile, peaks on a gasp. The first green tendrils crawl up from the soil and arc skyward. Ten breaths later, a mature bush, ripe with sticky buds, balloons into being. The Grower leans in, begins plucking and dropping buds into a paper bag.
“Jah love.” Jada’s voice balloons with wonder.
A crackle of radio static. Harriman emerges from the tunnel leading The Magician, cuffed in platinum. The female cop follows behind, leading a miniature hound as it struggles to rush up and sniff The Magician’s pant cuffs. Kyrzig had apparently been out walking his dog.
“Guess they got their killer.” Gryphon accepts the bag, fishes out two buds, then thrusts the rest at Kyle. “Well that’s that. We’re going to get high now. Wanna come?”
“Adios, then.” Gryphon tosses a wry salute before he and Willy and Jada amble toward the tunnel.
Kyle stuffs the bag into a pocket alongside the strip of paper with the phone number of the janitorial service. That’s it then, he thinks. No more Nightside. He realizes he just doesn’t care. Pushing away the pang of guilt that yawns within him, he tells himself: Just want to get moving. Get that job. Get on to the next thing. He jams his hands into his pockets and bears for the edge of the park. He glances over and sees Harriman push The Magician into the back of a patrol car. Feels indifference as he watches the cop’s curiosity peak upon seeing a thread of pot-smoke rise from the tunnel mouth.
Their problem. Harriman begins advancing on the tunnel as Kyle reaches the bus stop, roots in his pocket for change. He forces himself not to looks as the patrol car containing The Magician and Harriman’s partner pulls from the curb and Harriman vanishes into the tunnel. Stillness; no one else is visible. Kyle scans for the bus …
And suddenly he is sprinting back into the park, hoping speed will compensate for his indifference of a moment before. He isn’t quite sure what he plans to do, but feels he must do something to prevent his friends’ bust. But the park stretches for an impossible distance and Kyle can’t seem to cross it no matter how much he lengthens his strides. He hears a ripping sound. (Either that or a snap – he isn’t sure.) The tunnel mouth is the size of a dime. Then, a nickel. And it stays a nickel for a long time. Until Kyle realizes he is holding his breath, hearing his heartbeat. Footsteps. Then, a hollow metallic echo from within:
“ … realize they’re second class citizens, right? And have to stay that way … good of all of us …”
Harriman. Kyle reaches the mouth. Bends with his hands on his knees and breathes with his lips wide to hide his gasping. When he is calmer, he cranes around the edge.
Gryphon lies prone, half in shadow, unnaturally still. It takes Kyle a moment to realize he has been shot. That snapping noise … A thin dark river (blood) runs from Gryphon’s thigh to where Sick Willy stands hunched, secured to a drain-pipe with Harriman’s platinum handcuffs. Willy’s clothing is ripped and his shoulders are hunched with extra weight. Wings. Willy had been caught and taken under control by Harriman in mid-transformation into some hawk-like creature.
“ … skanky little trollops like you come down here and treat ‘em like they’re rock-stars or something and they forget – forget – they’re the underclass!” Harriman has something in his hand. The lighter, Kyle sees. His damn lighter. When Sick Willy stirs, Harriman waves the object at him and he shrinks back, cowed.
(A man no more needs a license to do magic than he needs magic to bypass a hex.)
It comes to Kyle. The dead girls, Harriman’s omnipresence and intimate knowledge of the crimes. Harriman’s hatred of Infernals, a body stashed in a hexed dumpster and the policeman’s ever-present lighter –
(… a charm – some personal object or fetish enchanted by a Froule would to the trick …)
– the fetish charmed to give him immunity from magic. It enabled him to bypass the hex, get the drop on Gryphon, take control of Sick Willy …
Harriman. Harriman is the killer.
Jada’s arm is extended before her. Kyle glimpses silver. A knife. Harriman is indifferent to its glimmering point switching back and forth in the tunnel’s shadow like a steel firefly, intent on delivering his rebuke to the masses for daring to treat Infernals as equals.
“Don’t know why you kids admire them so.” Harriman glances down at the fallen Gryphon, the chained Willy. “They’re not all that powerful or extraordinary, ya know …”
With a movement that is almost casual Harriman slips inside Jada’s guard and backhands her. She slams the tunnel wall, a howl of breath exploding from her throat as Harriman scoops up the dropped knife. Kyle’s spirits spiral into oblivion like a plug pulled on a bath-tub full of hope.
Our fighter’s down. Kyle glances from the prone Gryphon to Willy. And cuffed in platinum, our Fluxer can’t shift into a creature powerful enough to fight Harriman. Which leaves …
Kyle examines Harriman’s strong back as he bends over Jada, securing her to the wall with a second pair of handcuffs. And shivers.
I don’t even know my own magic.
Then he remembers:
… your natural inclinations.
Kyle steps from the shadows.
Harriman is about to speak again when he notes the movement, turns and drops his hand to his gun. Then he recognizes Kyle and relaxes.
“Well if it isn’t the little freak with no license.” Harriman’s smile is wintry. “Closer to human than any of them. But you’re still an Infernal. Racially, anyway. Even if you can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.”
“And you’re still a cop. Even if you kill people.” Kyle manages to keep his voice calm.
“Yeah I kill people.” Harriman’s words drip with disgust. “People who think you guys are special. People who treat you as equals instead of the parasites you really are. I’m doing a public service. Because what happens when these little girls grow up and have kids they start teaching to think that you Infernals – you freaks – are no different from us, huh?”
“We’ll never know.” Coiled rage tightens within Kyle and his voice firms up. “We’ll never know because they’re dead.”
“Same way you’ll be soon.” Harriman turns back to Jada. “Sit down.”
And as Harriman turns back, his angry response (“What?”) waiting unspoken on his lips, Kyle bends and takes up a cigarette butt. Transforms it into a geranium. And extends it to Harriman.
“Flowers for the dead,” Kyle says. And his voice is stone.
Kyle knows he himself may be about to join their ranks. But he doesn’t care. Something about fighting the injustice of this is more important than his own life. He remembers Trad. Street-wise, tough, but still beautiful, her thin face and wide eyes radiating a femininity that was breath-taking. Like a rose growing in a dumpster … As Kyle imagines her now he closes his eyes. Wondering: what would she be like had she lived? And his imagination lends detail to that question: a wrinkle here, a grey hair there … A slight tightening of the skin around the cheek-bones as she aged. And opening his eyes, he finds his image made real, just as he had with the she-hex: a mature Trad, standing beside Jada, holding a child. Trad is older, tired from the effort of bringing this life into being in the world – a tiny perfect baby reaching out from her turquoise blanket with precious, clumsy hands. Tired, yes, as she gazes down at her child. But for all that, stunningly beautiful.
“Trad.” Kyle smiles.
Harriman gazes nervously at the shade.
“See what beauty you robbed the world of? You bleak, skrajing freak!”
Rage for this lost loveliness thunders within Kyle. He summons the image of Kim, the doomed human girl, first to die. As with Trad her image appears aged – laugh lines, thinner hair, shoulders a little more slumped. But the gleam in her eyes. The confident smile, the chalk dusting her right hand, tingeing the frayed cuff of her pant-suit …
“A teacher. Kim would have been a great teacher. Reached hundreds of kids. Taught them that society’s war on the Infernals was nothing but prejudice and economics gift-wrapped as public safety. In the sixties it was the blacks. In the seventies it was women. In the eighties and nineties it was gays. And now ..?”
“Enough!” Harriman barks at Kyle, Jada completely forgotten. “Bleeding-heart liberal crap! They died. I killed them and they deserved to –”
“To die?” Kyle’s rage is monumental. That any person, human or Infernal, would presume to rob the world of life. “Monster! You. Are. Such. A. Skrajer!”
The last word, delivered on a whisper, is somehow more menacing than the scream it was building toward. Now all the white-hot anger within Kyle flows from his body in a bright ribbon of energy, compelled by his rage, by his imagination and intent. And suddenly out of the darkness, another shape starts to form …
Harriman squints. “Mandy?”
Harriman’s whisper emerges the same moment the shape coalesces into visibility: a teenage girl. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Something in the tilt of her chin, the shape of her cheek. So like those of the policeman holding the knife.
“HOW do you know what my daughter looks like?”
Kyle’s lip curls into a frown and he concentrates the intent of his projection, casting all of his emotion into a feeling that blasts outward in a jet of flame. And suddenly the image of Harriman’s daughter is burning.
Screams fill the tunnel. An illusion. But so realistic that Harriman cannot help lunging the distance between them, dropping to his knees, reaching through the fire.
Harriman’s bare arms swat the flames. He is too panicked to notice how they pass through, unharmed, even as his daughter is consumed. “Son of a ..! Make it stop, you sick demon!”
Kyle, fists clenched, merely stands his ground. And shakes his head once.
Harriman scrabbles at his holster. “You monster!” He yanks free his service pistol and jams it toward Kyle. “STOP!”
And Kyle twists the intensity of his feelings, tipping them over the edge of malice toward hatred. And watches with grim satisfaction as the flames balloon and the shrieks rise and Harriman, unable to take any more, turns the barrel of the gun to his own head and …
“There’s that skrajing tour bus again.”
Kyle looks up from his place beside Jada. Spelled out in coins in front of them on the sidewalk:
M K E L O E
The chugging, silver-skinned vehicle rumbles past. Faintly, through the open windows they hear: “ … moved here because of restrictions on their access to employment, welfare, housing and healthcare … addiction and violence remain ongoing concerns …”
Jada calls to a passing woman: “Hey! Wanna help us make love on the sidewalk?”
The woman, hair swaddled beneath a kerchief and her face wrapped by thick sunglasses, sneers before turning away and pushing forward through the crowd. A thick-set man in a grey business suit notes the dismissal, shakes his head then hands two quarters to Jada.
“You nice kids get yourselves something to eat, okay?”
“Jah love,” she says. And uses the quarters to start the apex of the A in “make.”
Sick Willy takes a seat beside them. “Lookit,” he says, unfolding a scrap of paper from his pocket. An article from that morning’s paper.
LOCAL COP ARRESTED FOR MURDERS
Suspect Kyrzig Released
Gryphon’s lips move as he reads the headline silently to himself over Willy’s shoulder. “So it ends.” He drops his cigarette butt. Crushes it. “You staying?” he asks Kyle.
As Gryphon walks away, Kyle picks up the smoldering cigarette butt. Transforms it into a geranium.
“Oh, pretty!” Jada reaches for it.
“No.” Kyle pulls it from her grasp. “That’s not for you.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Your narrator – Paul Cram – is a scrappy actor who’s character in movies always seems to be the one that dies. His latest role in Anniversary has him awake at night seeing things that no one wants to admit are happening. While Paul still considers his voice to be somewhat new to the world of audio books, he has a few full-length novels under his belt, including the love story Flirting With Death set against the beauty of Lake Michigan & the Zombie Apocalypse. When not acting, Paul can be found out in the woods of Minnesota, arguing pop-culture with his little brother.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.